But in his quest to protect Irish links clubs from the EU regulatory agencies, Pat Ruddy convinced many of them in the late 80s and early 90s that they needed to build courses on their remaining links land now, or else looming regulations would mean that they would never be able to do so. That gave us some unfortunate new courses that would have been better left as sand dunes (Ballyliffin’s Glashedy Course), but also led to the updating of several existing courses, including Portsalon. Doak visited Portsalon again sometime in the late 00s and noted that while it had a few dull holes, Ruddy had transformed Portsalon into an excellent course, with outstanding views and a few outstanding holes to match.
I agree completely with Doak’s assessment. This is a fine course and probably the only course outside of what I’d consider the top tier of Irish courses that I played (Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, St. Patrick’s, Portmarnock, The Island) that wasn’t disappointing. While it doesn’t quite have the drama of Portstewart, hole-for-hole, it’s probably a sounder course. It’s true that the course gets a bit repetitive around the turn but apart from that, it has a fine and interesting mix of holes in the dunes near the coast and holes on hillier inland ground. Along with Ardglass and Narin and Portnoo, this is the only course that I played where a significant portion of the course is not on links land. And of these, Portsalon has by far the best inland holes. In fact what the strongest stretch of holes, 13-15, crosses hilly inland terrain.
Unfortunately Portsalon has the same negative as almost all of the other second tier Irish courses: it’s too expensive for what you get. While at 150 euros, it’s not as egregious as Portstewart (£235) or the Ballyliffin courses (180 euros for the Old, 200 for the Glashedy), I’d say that this course would be reasonably priced in the $125-145 range, not in the upper $100s. But if you’re an American who’s come all the way to Donegal to play golf, it’s a worthwhile stop. Stay at Rosapenna and take the 20-30 minute drive out here. It’s a bit different than most of the other Irish links courses and while a bit on the pricey side, it’s still definitely worth playing.
While I noted that 13-15 might be the strongest stretch of holes, for a two hole stretch, you can’t beat the openers. The ~355 yard opener (the scorecard is in meters) competes favorably with Ardglass and Royal County Down for the best opener on my trip. It’s only about 150 yards to carry the ditch, which is actually a walking path to the massive beach on the left. You want to keep your drive up the left here, which, if you hit it far enough will give you a view of the flagstick and from which you won’t have to cross as bumpy of terrain. The terrain walking from the fairway to the green and around the green is about as good as anything you’ll find anywhere.
It starts with what might be the single best drive that I’ve seen. Obviously it’s an incredible view over the beach and the river. Also obviously, it’s a diagonal carry over them and the more you carry, the shorter second you’ll have—a serious issue on a long par 4. And the carry distances are almost perfect. Short hitters don’t have to make any carry if they don’t want to, but then you have every length carry from 150 up to 270 depending on your preference. And the carry on the ideal line is about 240, which seems almost perfect for longer hitters. So blocking out everything on the right side, this is obviously a great driving hole.
But it’s what’s going on on the right side that brings it to yet another level. There’s a dune ridge running diagonally up the entire right side of the fairway. So the further you bail out to the right, the more likely you are to go over the dune ridge and have a long and blind approach. The only negative I’d note about that is that just over the dune ridge is the seventeenth fairway and there were a lot of people from this hole in the seventeenth fairway when I was playing that hole.
If you’re a long hitter, the drive is even more exacting because two high mounds narrow the fairway starting at just under 300 yards. If you hit driver and push it just a little, you’ll be stuck behind them…or maybe in them. If you want to fit one in the narrow opening between them and the fairway, you’ll have to make about a 270 yard carry and be very accurate. But if you hit the fairway, you’ll have a flat lie and a short shot into the green. So in short, this is an extraordinary driving hole for everyone.
If there were ever a course worth playing for one hole, it’s this course for this one. Fortunately many of the others are very good too, so let’s move on.
The hole doglegs left and there isn’t too much trouble if you hug the left side. The major feature here is a cluster of three bunkers in the middle of the fairway starting about 90 yards short of the green. Carrying these shouldn’t be an issue if you’ve hit a decent drive. The remainder of the hole is open into the green and it presents a good opportunity to make up a shot.
Upon reflection, I think I’m comfortable calling this the leader of the second-tier Northern Irish/Ireland courses, just ahead of Portstewart. It’s definitely not as flashy and many would dock it for feeling a bit repetitive from the middle of the front nine through the beginning of the back. But while it definitely doesn’t feel as repetitive, Portstewart’s back nine isn’t exactly full of great holes. And while the front nine has some fine holes and is memorable, this isn’t always for the best of reasons. With the exception of eleven and twelve, the Portsalon holes have interesting, often challenging drives over good terrain playing to good greens. It may not be as good for championship golf as Portstewart, but Portsalon strikes me as more solid throughout.
So if you go to Ireland with your golf clubs and make it as far as Donegal, be sure to play Portsalon. It’s an excellent complement to St. Patrick’s, which given the rankings is likely to make Rosapenna a common destination for American golfers (although it was surprisingly empty when I was there). But honestly, I think I liked Portsalon almost as much as I liked St. Patrick’s.